Questionable public transit design in St. Louis

By Satyam Khanna

In 2006, the St. Louis MetroLink opened up a major new subway extension (blue line), bringing the total length of subway tracks in the area to 46-miles. Originally, the sole subway line went from the suburban airport to downtown (red line). Here is the current state of the Metro in St. Louis, where I’m living for the summer:

STL MetroLink

The new line was hailed by local political leaders as a victory for collaboration between the county and the city (which often clash politically). That’s worth its praise, and certainly the line is beneficial for those living in the suburbs, but ultimately, the blue line extension seems to be a somewhat of loser for the city.

First, you can see that with the new addition, the general structure of the MetroLink system remains east-west focused. In the west is the wealthier suburbs of Clayton and Richmond Heights, whereas in the east (nearing the River) is the financial district and considerably poorer urban core. Chances are that wealthy suburban residents already have cars, so they will likely be driving to the MetroLink station, parking (yet another problem), then using it to get downtown for work, restaurants, and baseball/hockey games.

In the mean time, if you want to move around within the city — or are a poor urban dweller — you must rely on a overcrowded and perpetually delayed bus system.

As Ryan Avent and Yglesias have noted regarding the DC Metro, simply adding “spokes” to existing subway systems, as St. Louis has done here, can end up hurting the urban core by leading to crowded trains and back-ups at stations. Increasing MetroLink’s capacity in a sustainable way means developing a subway framework in urban core of St. Louis. Naturally, that is going to be very expensive. But note that the cost of widening and rebuilding St. Louis’s main interstate highway was over $500 million while the cost of the recent MetroLink extension was roughly $430 million!

Another point is that St. Louis is one of the more segregated cities in America, with north St. Louis city almost entirely black and south St. Louis city predominantly white. The blue line runs right along this racial dividing line. It makes logical sense that a north-south Metro extension, for instance, within the city limits would at least begin to break down the racial barrier while also encouraging increased mobility in the urban center.